Editor: Dame Debs Reframed Death, And That’s a Liberation

As tributes continue to pour in for journalist and campaigner Dame Deborah James, the public is getting a timely reminder of what it means to die

Ollie Smith 1 July, 2022 | 2:46PM
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Deborah James

I’ve written a column on this topic before, so I'll keep it brief. I’m also aware there are plenty of people whose tributes to Dame Deborah James are far more eloquent than mine, which is reason enough to be respectfully short anyway.

Deborah James’ legacy will of course be a financial one. At the time of writing, her Bowelbabe fund for Cancer Research UK stands at £7.2 million, a whopping 2,864% of its initial £250,000 target. But after that money is spent on vital research and treatments, something more powerful will remain.

The only way I can describe it is as a sort of freedom. It is the freedom to confront more fearlessly the complicated and grim reality of incurable illness, and the permission to have open conversations about what death involves, right down to what it looks and sounds like.

Key there is banishing the stigma and embarrassment attached to physical decay, and its own accompanying impact on what we perceive to be "beauty", "dignity" or "wellness", in an age where we seem to have ever less say in how those concepts are used, it is empowering to know that you can shape them yourself when the end arrives.

This process benefits us all. Preparing for your death is a huge part of life planning and, whether it’s writing a will, spending your time (and money) wisely, or having difficult conversations like the one I had with my dad, it can be extraordinarily beneficial to cast some sunlight on a topic principally seen as very dark and (rightly) very sad.

And that is what you will see if you watch the extraordinary video of James in her final days.

By now completely bedridden and in a great deal of pain, she is surrounded by a loving family, who – in the midst of their own grief – are feeding off the permission she gave them to live and smile. If you have ever been in a room with someone who is dying, you’ll appreciate just how remarkable that is. It is not a happy process, but there can be happiness aplenty in the moment. 

Which is not to trivialise it at all. On the contrary, having permission to embrace the freedom of living while someone slips away is an acknowledgement of how important life really is.

A great many of James’ friends have said she can now rest well, and they're right. Having worked so hard to recover, and then live with rebellious hope when her illness was overwhelming, she showed there is more to death than tears and taboo, and more life in the dying than most of us would ever have assumed.

Rest in peace.

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Ollie Smith  is editor of Morningstar UK